Political Science Class Explores Cuban-U.S. Relations

Monday, June 30, 2014

by Katie Smith ’15

Cuba is often associated with its 1950s-era cars, all in bright colors and kept in mint condition. Ancient Buicks and Chevrolets, relics of the island’s former relationship with the United States, line the streets of Havana. But for 12 Saint Joseph’s students, recently returned from a study tour to Cuba, the island offered much more than a colorful show of the past.

Contemporary Cuban Politics and Culture, a class and study tour organized by the political science department, introduces students to over 500 years of Cuban history and provides a profound understanding of the country. During the spring semester, students learned of Cuba’s relationship with the United States and its current political situation, and then experienced life on the island during the class’ two-week travel period.

Still relatively rare given the United States’ embargo against Cuba, travel opportunities, like the SJU study tour, are organized to increase understanding between Cuban and American citizens.

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“The exception to the U.S. embargo allows Americans to travel to Cuba for educational purposes,” says Richard Gioioso, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, who taught the course and accompanied the students to Cuba. “The exception is intended to facilitate a ‘people-to-people’ connection, highlighting the fact that although the governments are at odds, the people of Cuba and the United States are not enemies and have many things in common. These trips make interacting with and learning from each other mutually beneficial and enriching.”

The tour’s itinerary was intentionally designed to allow for dialogue with Cubans. Economists, journalists, and physicians discussed their lives and professions with SJU students, while youth from the island shared their reactions to the flood of Cuban-American migration they have experienced personally. Students also learned to salsa, witnessed authentic Santeria practices, and visited with U.S. Foreign Service workers assigned to the island.

Julia Burke ’15 of Bel Air, Md., who is majoring in Spanish and linguistics, was first interested in the study tour because she wanted to learn about U.S. relations with the island from the Cuban perspective.

“I expected to be treated differently, because I am an American and because of the difficult relationship between our countries,” says Burke. “But the complete opposite was true. In every conversation, no topic was off limits — even topics that Americans might avoid, like politics or our personal lives. I’ve never learned so much from being in another country, and it had everything to do with talking to everyone I could.”

Seeing his students’ willingness to learn from Cubans, Gioioso says, “No group could have been better ambassadors of the United States than our group from SJU.”

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